Staff claim they are 'regularly underpaid' by firm providing Lancashire care services

A care worker employed by a company that provides services on behalf of Lancashire County Council says she and her colleagues face a “constant battle” to be paid the correct wages.

Wednesday, 16th June 2021, 4:26 pm

Catherine Murphy – not her real name – works for Lifeways, which is commissioned by the authority to work with people in supported living accommodation.

She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that underpayments are a regular occurrence – and that at one point she was owed £500 after five consecutive months of mistakes in her pay packet.

Catherine was speaking in the wake of a survey carried out by the union UNISON after it received reports of pay issues at the London-headquartered care firm, which has a Lancashire office in Chorley serving the county and neighbouring Greater Manchester

Lifeways' Lancashire office on Percy Street in Chorley
Lifeways' Lancashire office on Percy Street in Chorley

Out of 147 North West-based Lifeways staff who responded to the union’s questions, 72 percent said that they had been paid incorrectly in the last six months – with 26 percent reporting being paid wrongly every month.

The company says that the figures do not tally with information held by its payroll department, but Lancashire County Council has said that it will now look into the claims after they were brought to its attention by the LDRS.

Catherine works in a supported living setting, helping people with learning disabilities and mental health problems. She says that repeated pay problems mean she cannot look forward to receiving her hard-earned wages.

“You just dread pay day, which is awful – and it’s because you know that the battle is going to start again.

“You feel like you’re asking for something that you’re not entitled to – and that you’re a pain. You email the right people and just get ignored.

“I only work 20 hours a week on minimum wage, but the mistakes kept happening. Personally, I’m lucky – my husband earns a decent wage, so we could cope with the underpayments.

“But one person I worked with a few years ago became homeless because of it. He started a new job with Lifeways, worked his first month – and then they didn’t pay him. He had rent to pay on a flat and his landlord kicked him out.

“I’ve known people crying because they need to buy baby milk and they can’t afford it,” Catherine recalls.

She also claims that she has struggled to get money she was owed for completing training packages in her own time – and while she says that she has also occasionally been overpaid, “they [Lifeways] were always quick to sort that out”.

“We do a job with a lot of responsibility – supporting people with things like finances and medication. We’re not asking for anything that we shouldn’t be – just the wages for the work we’ve done.”

A South Ribble man who relies on Lifeways' support workers says that several of them have "moved heaven and earth" to help him maintain his housing tenancy.

Adrian Davies - again, not his real name - added: "But the very best staff don't last very long, presumably because of the problems they face [with pay]. I can think of two or three support workers who were gold gem diamonds and helped me through some difficult times - but they left," he said.

Forty-four percent of respondents to the UNISON survey said that they had fallen behind with household bills because of pay errors.

UNISON North West regional organiser Dan Smith said that it was “an insult” that some staff were regularly being underpaid.

“Care workers have put themselves at risk during the pandemic to care for our loved ones – the very least they deserve is to be paid accurately and on time.

“[Some] are forced to borrow from friends and family or to visit food banks to make ends meet.

“Lifeways need to take action now to ensure staff are paid properly and on time. Local councils that commission Lifeways – including Lancashire County Council – should also intervene to ensure that our social care workers are treated with the respect they deserve.

“Care workers employed directly by local councils or the NHS do not suffer the indignity of having to plead with their employers to be paid correctly every month.

“This is yet more evidence of the failings of the private social care sector and the desperate need for social care services to be delivered by the public sector,” Mr. Smith added.

However, a spokesperson for Lifeways took issue with the union’s claims – and the way they had been raised.

“The figures quoted by UNISON bear no relation to the information we have from our payroll helpdesk regarding payroll issues – and we are disappointed that UNISON did not share their concerns with us before approaching the media.

“We take very seriously our obligations to our colleagues with regard to their pay.

“We work very hard to ensure that all our colleagues are paid correctly and on time, and we actively encourage our people to contact us if they experience any problems.

“All our colleagues have direct access to the payroll helpdesk and a manager who has the authority to resolve any problems without delay.

“We are always seeking to improve how we work and will continue to do so,” the company’s spokesperson added.

According to its website, Lifeways is the largest supported living specialist in the UK and provides services to over 200 people in the areas served by its Chorley office.

Ian Crabtree, Lancashire County Council’s director of adult disability and care services, said that the authority had been unaware of the alleged pay problems experienced by Lifeways staff – but would now investigate.

“Care workers do a superb job in often difficult circumstances and it’s vital that providers ensure they are paid promptly and correctly for their hard work.

“Supporting care staff, providers and ensuring stability in the care market are priorities for us.

“No issues with pay problems for Lifeways staff have been brought to our attention previously, but we will now look into this to better understand the situation.”